In 2009, I ran this search on Google: “Executive Functions in Dallas-Fort Worth.” The result included places to have parties for CEOs, executive suites, and party planning.
Since then I have been striving to get “Executive Functions” on the radar here. As a result, we became the first center in DFW to offer a full line of services to help children, teens, and adults improve their executive functions. Read on to learn more about these important skills.
What are Executive Functions?
During the past two decades, researchers have defined a set of brain-based abilities that help us manage our time, energy, resources, and talents: these skills are called “executive functions.” The word “executive” comes from the word “execute” or “to do”. In other words, these are the skills that help us to successfully get things done. These are important skills everyone needs at school, on the playground, and in life. The good news is that weaknesses in these executive skills can be improved!
It is important to understand that problems with executive functioning do not constitute a specific diagnosis or disorder. All individuals who struggle with ADHD have a number of executive functioning challenges, but not everyone who struggles with executive functioning has ADHD. Research shows us that executive functioning difficulties can be associated with anxiety, autism, congenital heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, mood disorders, seizures, traumatic brain injury, TIAs, and Turner syndrome. There are even a few people who have trouble with executive functioning and have no other diagnoses.
Many have compared the executive functions to the CEO of a company: these skills help us efficiently and effectively manage all our other abilities. Over the years, researchers have identified specific cognitive processes that are necessary to successfully execute daily tasks. Each child, teen, and adult may have a unique set of executive skill strengths and weaknesses. Understanding your and your child/teen’s specific executive skill strengths and needs can help you better understand how to help.
Internationally known expert Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D. (2012) has defined executive functions as “self-regulation across time for the attainment of one’s goals (long-term self-interests) typically in the context of others.” This simple yet complex definition elegantly emphasizes the importance of starting productive behaviors and stopping unproductive behaviors in order to set and achieve goals while staying connected to others.
Here’s my simplified definition of executive functions:
Depending on whose research you read, there are anywhere between 5 and 20 executive skills. Based on Dr. Barkley’s definition and the work of Drs. Rosemary Tannock, Peg Dawson, and Lynne Meltzer, I have settled on 13 skills and I have put them into 3 main groups: Attention Management, Time & Task Management, & Self-Management.
Three of the executive skills are especially impacted by our attention: sustained attention, working memory, and organization.
Sustained attention is the ability to maintain attention to a specific situation or task in spite of distractions, poor mental energy, fatigue or boredom. This skill is often misunderstood because of some of the terms we have used to describe this problem over the years. For example, “attention deficit” makes it sound as if an individual with ADHD cannot pay attention to anything when, in fact, we pay attention to everything. Sustained attention is really about maintaining attention to the right thing at the right time.
Working memory is the capacity to hold information in mind while performing complex tasks. This skill is important for following multiple step instructions, including solving complex multifaceted math procedures and problems. Organizing ideas for writing can also be hampered by poor working memory. Working memory is largely responsible for the learning challenges children and teens with executive functioning problems can experience. Research has consistently shown that working memory is directly affected by poor sustained attention.
Organization is the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials. Over the years, I have seen problems with organization keep thousands of smart people from experiencing their full potential. In today’s face-paced world, organizational systems are critical to success in school, business, and life. In order to get and stay organized, one must maintain strong attention management skills. Many students start the school year excited to have all their new organizational supplies. A week later, the new has worn off, they stop paying attention to their organizational schemes, and before they know it they are carrying around a backpack stuffed with papers in no particular order. Many adults do the same: we get busy and forget to stay organized: in the end we easily lose important information and materials.
Time and Task Management
Time and task management involves everything you need to think about and do to prioritize, plan, start, and complete daily tasks.
Time management involves estimating how much time one has and then figuring out how to best allocate it in order to stay within time limits/deadlines in order to achieve goals. Kids and adults who struggle with time management often arrive late to class, practice, dinner dates, and meetings because they just “lost track of time.” For some of us, time just disappears – it was there a minute ago and now it’s gone. We are constantly trying to keep up with it but we often fail to manage it well. Many who struggle with time management find it difficult to find a planner or calendar that works for them. Time management involves a number of subskills including planning/prioritizing, task initiation, and persistence.
Prioritizing involves trying to figure out what tasks are important to complete. Because some of us pay attention to everything and it’s hard to figure out what to pay attention to, we struggle to prioritize: everything seems like it’s important all at once. As a result, students struggle to figure out what to study for tests and adults have trouble recognizing which tasks need to be completed first.
Planning is necessary to complete a task, finish a project, or reach a goal. Operating without a plan is like driving in foreign, unfamiliar territory without a map: it’s easy to get lost and you can spend a lot of valuable time driving in circles getting nowhere fast. As a result, little gets done until the deadline and then it’s done poorly.
Task initiation is the ability to begin a task without procrastinating. For those of us who struggle with this skill, our brain actually tricks us into thinking that we work best when we are under the pressure of meeting a deadline at the last-minute: stress produces adrenalin which produces the exact chemicals our brain needs to pay attention to the right thing at the right time. Unfortunately, this additional stress and adrenalin are not good for our bodies. There are three main reasons people procrastinate: (1) we don’t expect to do well on the task or we don’t expect it to turn out too well for us (completing our taxes), (2) we don’t value the task (cleaning house), and/or (3) we impulsively find lots of other things to do besides the right thing at the right time. What are your reasons for procrastinating?
Persistence involves the ability to follow through to completion of a task or goal, and not being distracted by competing events. These competing activities may be good things, but they are not the things that will help an individual reach his or her goals. For example, spending time completing unfinished chores around the house is a good thing unless you really need to be finishing an important project for school or work.
Self-management involves the executive skills that are necessary to stay on track in life and then get back on track when we have lost our way.
Self-monitoring is the ability to think about your thinking, self-evaluate, and self-regulate in order to stop unproductive behaviors and stay the course to reaching your goals. Children with poor self-monitoring often struggle to know if they are on the right track when solving a problem at school and on the playground: most devastating, these kids and adults who are often brilliant in so many other ways also often struggle to pick up on social cues from their peers.
Response inhibition is the related ability to think about the consequences of our actions before taking action. Problems with this executive skill can cause us the most problems in life. Impulsively saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time hampers success in the classroom, at work, on the playground, and in life. Dr. Barkley has said (and I wholeheartedly agree) that this executive skill is a core deficit in ADHD: for example, a child’s ability to “focus” involves inhibiting all the other distractions around her. In other words, lack of response inhibition is more than “impulsivity.”
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt plans in the face of change, obstacles, mistakes, or new information. Children and adults who struggle with this skill can have tremendous difficulty making transitions and/or applying information learned in one setting to another setting.
Social intelligence is the ability to think about what others are thinking about you while thinking about whether your actions (words and deeds) help or hinder your ability to stay connected to others. Simply stated, those who struggle with this skill often miss social cues, struggle to make friends, and have difficulty keeping friends. This is an over-simplification of a complex skill.
Emotional control is closely related to response inhibition and involves the capacity to control one’s emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or manage behavior. Our emotions reside in the limbic system in the brain but can be controlled by the frontal lobe. When upset, the limbic system tells us to “fight” (get angry), “flee” (avoid or escape), or “freeze” (get stuck). The frontal lobe is supposed to stop this process, but if you have trouble with this executive skill, this rarely happens. This executive skill is critical to developing and maintaining strong relationships. The lack of this skill is often the most damaging to the individual and those who love and care for him.
Good News about Executive Functions!
Children and Teens can benefit from developing executive skills utilizing research-based practices developed by educators at the New Hampshire Center for Learning and Attention Disorders, the Research Institute for Learning and Attention, and the University of Toronto. For over 20 years, these groups have shown that executive skills can be improved in children and teens using a variety of approaches.
We provide students tools and strategies based on the research completed by educators Lynn Meltzer, Ph.D., Rosemary Tannock, Ph.D., Peg Dawson, Ed.D. and Richard Guare, Ph.D. Click here to see how we have integrated this research into our Student Success! model for intermediate/middle school, high school, and college students.
Adults can benefit from Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to develop executive skill strategies as shown by clinicians and researchers at Mt. Sinai in New York and Mass General Hospital in Boston over the past decade. Click here to read a summary of Mt. Sinai’s research-proven approach. And then click here to see how we can help.
Need Help with Executive Functioning?
Call 817.421.8780 today to see how we can help you or your struggling loved one develop improved executive functions.
© 2009-2016, Monte W. Davenport, Ph.D.